Jun 1st 2020

Interview with Lydia Jardon: ‘Any artist who stops creating simply dies’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The passionate French pianist and festival organizer Lydia Jardon chooses her repertoire carefully, ranging from the great Russians to contemporaries to neglected composers. ‘It is essential’ (for a pianist), she says in our interview below, ‘to keep learning and recording new repertoire.’

Ms. Jardon has just published another example of her meticulous research, Nikolai Miaskovky’s Sonatas 1, 5 and 9 – in essence the composer’s output book-ending his lifespan. Her long-term project of recording all nine sonatas is making CD history, standing more or less alone in masterly interpretations of this very gripping music. The final three, 6, 7 and 8, will appear in 2023. She is publishing her interpretations on her own label, Ar Ré-Sé Classique.

Miaskovsky (1881-1950) is one of the lesser-known victims of Stalinist repression although in his lifetime he was a prominent contributor to the Russian oeuvre – much of it written in code. His sonatas and his 27 symphonies reflect the anguish he – alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich – felt as the Kremlin cajoled and threatened them to steer clear of ‘formalism’.  Detailed and well-researched liner notes by Richard Prieur call the composer’s life ‘the hell of duality’.

 

(Disclaimer: I spent four years as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and reported on the final days of this tragic period under the thought police of Leonid Brezhnev. I observed Dmitri Shostakovich one snowy night sitting near me at a concert of Mikhail Glinka’s charming works. He looked as if he were on the verge of bursting into tears while taking in Glinka’s happy music.)

 

Julia_Jardon
Lydia Jardon

Lydia Jardon discovered Miaskovsky upon the recommendations of a colleague who felt she would respond well to the fiery emotions and virtuoso demands of the writing. Her embrace of the Sonata No. 1 demonstrates her ability to grasp and unify four disparate movements into one unearthly experience. After multiple hearings, I have never tired of her performance. She creates a musical line over-arching the 30-minute composition, returning again and again to a simple main theme. The fact that he composed this work while still a student at St. Petersbourg Conservatory simply beggars belief. Ms. Jardon virtually turns herself into a Russian as she launches into the work’s sometimes thorny passages.

Sonata No. 9, written in 1949 as he was terminally ill, just a year before his death, has been described as a ‘twilight’ work, pared down to essentials, sometimes evoking Grieg’s sweeter Lyric Pieces. Ms. Jardon seems to relish this calming music after exploring his tortured life through the other eight sonatas.

Referring to another of Miaskovsky’s compositions, Prieur calls it ‘alchemy in sound, a combat between melody and the dissonance heralding another era…’ In our interview, she says concert organizers have a ‘fear’ of programming Miaskovsky.

Besides her demanding schedule of recitals and recordings, Lydia Jardon is tireless organizer of music festivals, one in Ushant (Ouessant) and one in Martinique. Both have as their mission to focus on lesser-known women composers such as Marie Jaëll, Mel Bonis, Rebecca Clarke and Louise Farrenc. She is a graduate of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris and the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. Dedicated to the future of the piano, she created the Ecole de Piano Yaya for Asian children in 2013. Personally, she sees a possible future for herself in the music of Spain and Catalonia, inspired by her Catalan mother.

Ms. Jardon responded to questions generously and promptly, by email and telephone:

Question. How did it all start for you?

Answer. I spent my childhood in Montluçon, one of the wine-producing areas of France, where there was also a conservatory. I began my piano lessons at age 8, but without much pressure from my teachers.

Q. Were you a slow starter ?

A. Well, I was no child prodigy. It was three years later that I began to understand the magnitude of the task ahead in any rigorous study of the piano. That realisation came as a result of teachers who alternated with me -- one was Yane Weltz, the favourite harpsichordist of Wanda Landowska, and the other a student of Alfred Cortot, Raymond Thiberge. I got basic training, overcoming the bad habits I had already acquired. Every step of the way was painful. In the period between the ages of 11 and 18 I never left a lesson in any state other than tears.

Q. What influences do you feel today from these teachers?

They left a strong impression on me. I now live my life at the piano and I teach my students the legacy that they left me – the body is our instrument, the piano only furniture. The energy of the tone, the gradual horizontal force of the fingers exerting forward pressure into the music is the physical ‘horizontal’ application of the player’s body. Too much emphasis on the vertical pressure produces a hard sound that does not project into space.

Q. You entered the Paris Conservatory at age 13. How did you manage to impress the judges?

A. It was the powerful conviction to dedicate myself to the piano that enabled me to enter the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris as a ‘première nommée’ at age 13.  And then I entered the next level at age 18 also as a ‘première nommée’.  And yet my artistic development was due to influences outside the Conservatory – François-Joël Thiollier (who recorded the complete Rachmaninov piano oeuvre) and Milosz Magin (who recorded the complete Chopin piano works).

Q. Your repertoire seems very diversified. How do you proceed? Do you have periods or cultures (Russian, French) that interest you personally?

A. Those two great pianists prompted me to rethink my repertoire in such a way that would leave an impression on the history of recordings. It was with Milosz Magin that I worked on my first CD, the complete Goyescas of Granados, chosen for me by a man who died just after I signed my contract for the CD – Georges Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, director of Vox, then Panthéon International. He had already published the complete piano works of Alicia de Larrocha and several CDs of Aldo Ciccolini. I had to wait seven years to record my first CD, however, until I could agree to be co-producer.

Q. Your discography is heavy on the Russians…

A. Yes, It was M. Thiollier who encouraged me to work on Rachmaninov’s concerto No. 3, which was released after my second CD, the 26 Chopin Préludes. I went on to record the two Rachmaninov piano sonatas and then Nos. 3, 4, and 5 by Miaskovsky, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, before deciding to do all the Miaskovsky sonatas – 1, 5, and 9, and the final one CD, sonatas 6, 7 and 8. My only foray into French music has been Lucien Garban’s transcription of Debussy’s masterpiece, La Mer, that I recorded in 2001. In 2019, I joined with two other pianists – Alexandra Matievskaya and Lorène de Ratuld -- to share the complete solo piano works of the contemporary composer Florentine Mulsant.

Q. How do you see your musical mission today?

A. My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness. Any artist who stops creating simply dies. And in this vexing period of the mortal menace of the corona virus, it seems to me essential to keep learning and recording new repertoire.

Q. Your CD label, Ar Ré-Sé, is 20 years old in 2021. Where does the name come from?

A. It is a word from Breton, the language of Brittany, and it means “those women”. I created the label after my first festival of classical music by women composers on the Island of Ouessant, the northernmost point of Brittany, in fact the most northern point of France herself.

Q. Are your achieving your aims with this label?

A. Yes, at the beginning, in 2001, we earned back our investment. Of course now, little by little, the market for CDs has been in a downward spiral. Internet downloads are more economical and so unfortunately we are moving toward a dematerialisation of the physical disc.

Q. What drew you to the rare piano sonatas of Nikolai Miaskovsky?

A. The impetus came from Pascal Ianco, former artistic director of the publisher “Chants du Monde”, a collection of all the works of the great Russian composers. He was convinced I would respond to Miaskovsky’s music, and he was right.

Q. Was there a cultural, emotional connection you felt when you dived into Miaskovsky’s complex narratives and heavy harmonies?

A. Analysing any composer requires diving into his or his or her soul and culture, and feeling empathy with the traumas of the past.  That explains my attraction to this composer. Now I am focused on completing my cycle of his nine sonatas.

Q. Did Miaskovsky’s precarious life under the Soviets attract you – the ‘hell of duality’, as you called it? He was a friend of Prokofiev and he knew Shostakovich, two other great composers who suffered under this same duality?

A. They had to compose in code. Shostakovich’s 13th symphony was a hymn to the Ukrainian Shoah, and avoided the artistic slavery imposed on composers of the period. He had to make his music say the opposite of what was expected of him. Despite the panoply of distinctions and honours awarded by Lenin and Stalin, Miaskovsky managed to express the essentials of his nature in his music, producing deep emotions.

Q. What is Miaskovsky’s legacy in the current cultural scene in Russia?

A. In Moscow, when I gave a recital at the Scriabin Museum in 2019, one of his nieces told me the royalties are smaller and smaller lately. His sonatas have been recorded by various Russian pianists but not distributed internationally. His niece says these recordings are not of much musical value but an exception is Sviatoslav Richter’s magnificent recording of Sonata No. 3.

Q. One can perhaps grasp Miaskovky’s depth by learning to play his music but is he accessible just by listening?

The grasp of his state of mind through his compositions explains the heavy Miaskovian writing. A pianist rendering the immensity of his musical phrases in one sweep brings to the surface his intangible internal distress for the listener.

Q. Isn’t his piano music less known than his large-scale orchestral works – like his 27 symphonies?

A. Miaskovsky is one of the many accursed composers in music history.  True, his symphonies are in the forefront compared to his sonatas that are relatively personal and private. And yet his sonatas require an enormous effort to bring out the essence. My complete sonatas project can only be seen as a long-term endeavor. Unfortunately, outside of Russia, concert organisers are frightened by the idea of a Miaskovsky sonata in a recital program.

Q. You grouped sonatas 1, 5 and 9 together despite their wide range in his life.

A. Yes, the first was composed during his time at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and reveals influences of Scriabin, Franck and even Grieg. No. 9 was composed just prior to his death in 1950. To me, it stands as a summary of his entire life.

Q. You have organized piano festivals in Ouessant and in Martinique for women composers. Do you really feel women still need preferential support in the current age?

A. All I want is for women to benefit from the same level of support as men.

Q. Are you interested in conducting from the keyboard, as so many pianists do today?

A. I have never done it and it doesn’t interest me. It seems to me to be nothing more than a spectacular artistic rodeo, not favouring the emotions of music.

Q. What new repertoire do you have in mind?

A. If I don’t discover another composer from Eastern Europe or Russia, I will probably return to my Spanish origins. My mother was Catalan and the music of Iberia is not that far removed from Russian music by the extravagant pianism and the virtuosity that both require.

 

 


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